Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Vanity publishing

The latest full issue of the Journal of Electronic Imaging has a very interesting article by Jonathan Phillips, Peter Bajorski, Peter Burns, Erin Fredericks, and Mitchell Rosen: Comparing image quality of print-on-demand books and photobooks from web-based vendors. The article compares the image quality of several print service providers (PSP) catering to the self-publishing market, using all major digital presses.

The inquisitive reader with some knowledge of the business can guess the actual print providers from the references.

The paper introduces a new quality metric for the PSP technology segment and offers four conclusions:

  1. ICC profiles are still a nightmare. Although with Version 4 profiles the technology has reached full maturity, there still is no reliable workflow for using ICC profiles and ICC profiles are used incorrectly.
  2. The color gamut volume is not a statistically significant correlate of book quality.
  3. Color accuracy is not a statistically significant correlate of book quality.
  4. Especially for photobooks, there is a lot of variability.

Due to this variability and the small number of PSPs studied, the statistical significance is not particularly strong. The study was conducted in 2007, and in the meantime there are many more PSPs, so it would be interesting to repeat the study, maybe after 4 years, in 2011.

But then, who would pay for it? Thinking of how in the U.S. R&D in physics and electronics has been cut by 90% to 95% over the past few decades both in private and public organizations (see here), I can hardly imagine anybody sponsoring such a study. Actually, thinking of it, this country might no longer be able to pull off a project like CERN's Large Hadron Collider in Geneva. After last month's power outages, I suspect we would not even be able to power it if the Europeans would build it for us.

The customers of vanity publishing are not middle-class folks who care about image quality. Yet, the princes can afford to build Taj Mahals, so PSP for self-publishing might already be a disappearing market because its target population has disappeared.

When we take the long view and consider our industry's skill to capitalize old technologies, then we might want to think about Alan Kay's Dynabook, Nick Sheridon's Gyricon, Mark Weiser's ubicomp and PARCpad, and Chuck Thacker's tablet computer. Recently they have resurrected from death in the vestiges of Amazon's Kindle, and even more recently, at the last Consumer Electronics Show, Microsoft's Steve Ballmer has introduced the HP Slate.

With all the good research presented in this JEI paper, maybe society is taking a different course and ICC profile nightmares are becoming irrelevant because personal vanity publications will be streamed to you via an HP Slate instead of a book collecting dust on your coffee table. Only history will be able to tell.

[At the time of this posting, the American Institute of Physics web servers are down; try later to retrieve the article in the link above].